Training the Herd Dog

Goats are fleet animals and possessed of a mind of their own. If large pastures are in use, especially ones with rocky outcroppings or dense forests, the only way to gather the herd is by using a trained herd dog. Australian sheepdogs, Australian Kelpies and Border Collies are the breeds of choice, although other breeds may suffice. The border collie and the other herd dog breeds have been bred for several hundred years to be a useful tool for the stockman. As such, the breeds in general need something constructive to do on a regular basis. Otherwise, they will develop bad habits, become neurotic and shy, or continually get in trouble. Because the herd dog has been bred for literally hundreds of years to improve livestock handling skills, it only follows that a dog will instinctively learn to do the routine tasks required. Unfortunately, if the handler never taps the true potential of the dog’s abilities, he will end up doing the things that a trained dog does more quickly and efficiently.

Most books or training clinics approach the training procedure from the perspective of field trials. It is important to understand why the field trial perspective is used as an approach to training. Field trials were developed much as the sport of rodeo developed; a group of shepherds got together to show off the skill of their dogs. That very quickly evolved into a contest. It became readily apparent that rules were required that would test the basic skills needed to handle stock in the most effective manner. As a result, field trials of today incorporate all of the basic skills needed by a trained herd dog. It doesn’t matter if the dog will never participate in a field trial or will never be used an area larger than a 50′ corral; the needed skills are the same and the approach to training should be the same. It is interesting that the sequence of maneuvers in a field trial follow precisely the sequence of training that has been found to be most effective over the years by experienced trainers. In fact, the standard trial course, taught one phase at a time being careful to have each phase down pat before proceeding on to the next can serve as the ideal 1-2-3 step training procedure.


Most training books list the common terms associated with dog work and training at the back of the book. For the purpose of this guide, it is appropriate that the reader become familiar with these terms before proceeding.

OUTRUN – dog is sent out to gather livestock, either to the left or right. Dog should go wide enough and deep enough around and behind the stock in a fashion that will cause him to arrive directly opposite the handler on the far side of the stock without disturbing the stock.

LIFT – The act of putting the stock in motion in such a fashion that they will start off in line towards the handler.

FETCH – The gathering or bringing the stock on in as straight a line as possible to the handler.

DRIVE – Pushing the stock away from the handler. Cross-drive – Driving the stock from left to right, or right to left in front of the handler.

SHED – Using the dog to separate the flock into two or more groups.

SINGLE – Using the dog to separate one animal from the flock.

FLANK or SIDES – Turning the dog to either right or left on command.

EYE – The degree to which the dog attempts to pass his authority or intensity on to the livestock through eye contact.

POWER- The ability of a dog to move livestock or cause them to submit to his will through his presence alone. Gripping or biting in not a part of power.

GRIPPING – Biting or heeling.

BALANCE – The ability of the dog to work and control livestock by maintaining just the right distance between the dog and the livestock to get the job done most efficiently. Balance is position. A dog working too close has to work many times as hard and causes stock to be reluctant to move freely. A dog working too far off his stock is ineffective.


“Come bye” or “Go bye” – Dog to his left, or clockwise movement around the stock.

“Away to me” or “Way to me” – Dog to his right, or counter clockwise movement.

“Down” or “Stand” – Stop command causing the dog to stop either lying down or standing.

“There” – Turn directly to the stock.

‘Walk up” or “Get up” – Move directly toward stock and push in the same direction until otherwise directed.

“That’ll do” – Recall. Call dog off stock


All stages of training are important and none are more important than the long period from the time the puppy is weaned until it is old enough to start formal training. This is the period in the dogs’ life when the handler is best able to guide the development of the pup’s personality and prevent bad habits from forming. Avoid letting a young pup spend too much time around livestock. Many pups develop the habit of camping out at the livestock pen fence, watching them for hours on end. This will cause the dog to be very “sticky” and not want to get to the other side of the stock when his formal training starts later. Avoid letting a young pup run with other dogs and correct any problems that come up as soon as they occur, such as car chasing, etc. Basic obedience training can start as early as 10 to 12 weeks of age. Take the time to teach the pup to come when called, lie down, stay, and stand on command during his growth period. Don’t do this in a halfway manner, the dog must do these basic things first time every time on command. Do not be lax in enforcing these commands or the rest of the dog’s useful life will be spent giving him several commands each time before he responds.


There is tremendous variety in the temperament, personality and maturity age in young dogs. As a general rule, dogs around 12 months of age are ready to start formal training with livestock. The dog needs all the time he can get to mature enough, both mentally and physically, to be able to cope with the pressure of formalized training.

At the age of four months, a young pup can be taken into a pen of gentle stock. This first introduction is really more for the handler than for the dog as there can be a real emotional charge for the handler when the puppy first looks at the stock. If he should show a strong interest by eyeing and stalking them, get excited about his potential. Take a pup of this age to stock only about once a month until he nears 12 months of age. The purpose for this is twofold. First, it allows the trainer to “check his oil”, so to speak, and evaluate the dog’s instinct and interest. At this time the approach to be used when formal training begins can be determined. Second, this provides an opportunity to keep any interest shown by the pup alive and building. As the dog approaches 10 -12 months of age, look for signs that his interest and intensity are strong enough to override the initial pressures of training and to avoid confusion. During the first informal and very short (2-3 minutes) introductions to stock, try not to control the pup. Let him do what he wants and remain in a position to keep him out of trouble. Physical pain or injury from getting stomped, kicked or run over by the stock could set him back a long ways. If the pup is very keen and really wants to work, this time can be used to develop his gathering instincts. Encourage him to get to the other side of the group and hold them up. If he doesn’t want to go to the other side, then the handler should move to the other side. Soon the pup will realize that this is where he should be. It is very important in effectively training a herd dog that his gathering instinct be well developed and strong to allow training to come easily.


Assuming the basic obedience training is complete, the dog is ready to start formal training. There are a couple of things to be acutely aware of and have firmly ingrained before starting and throughout the entire training process and beyond. The first thing necessary to start training is patience, although many parts of the training will come quickly and naturally for both the handler and the dog. Other times roadblocks will come that will likely take weeks to make any noticeable progress on at all. Keep a positive attitude and if some days find impatience predominating, put the dog away and come back another day when training can be a positive experience. Get rid of the idea that a dog can be trained in a few weeks. Training is very much a process of repetition and making the dog understand what is wanted and expected of him. If ten minutes three times a day can be spent training the dog, then he may be trained in 6 months. If that kind of time is not available, then expect the process to take proportionately longer. Generally speaking, if progress is not being made with the dog at any stage of training it is because the trainer is not being effective in letting him know just what is wanted or expected. Be flexible, give thought and try different approaches to each roadblock encountered. Success is possible.


Teaching the outrun is the foundation point for all of the training involved in a herd dog. It is the first thing taught and it is very important to have this well established before going any further. It is also one of the most difficult moves to perfect. Many dogs never get beyond this stage during the course of a two or three day training clinic where time is limited to 3-4 ten minute sessions with the instructor.

Teaching the outrun starts with teaching the dog to get around stock and balance to fetch them. Some dogs are fortunate enough to know to go to the opposite side right from the beginning. It is, after all, the natural instinct of the herd dog to want to fetch the stock. Unfortunately, many young dogs need a little help in realizing just what their instincts are. This usually isn’t too hard to accomplish. Start by encouraging the dog to get to the other side of the stock. If a little shooing is required, do so. If attempts to force the dog to the other side seem to confuse the dog or make him want to quit, try another tact. Try moving to the other side of the stock while keeping the dog stationary. Once in position, encourage the dog to fetch them or hold the sheep up. Remember, the outrun is the act of sending the dog around the stock to position himself to bring or fetch the stock to the handler. An outrun is an outrun whether it is a distance of 5 feet or 500 yards.

Once the dog wants to get to the other side of the stock and fetch them, he is ready to start developing an outrun. Send the dog around the stock and move in such a position as to keep the dog circling the stock instead of stopping on the opposite side. As the dog keeps circling the stock, he should be doing so with a fair amount of distance off the stock, 10 to 20 yards if space allows. Remember to develop balance the dog must be well off the stock but still in contact with them. Move or run at the dog to push him out to run wider and tell him “Get back” or “Get out”. Timing to accomplish this requires a little practice. If he is pushed too much in front, it will cause him to stop and possibly change direction or discourage him from working. If he is pushed a little behind it will cause him to speed up and probably cut in a little closer to the stock. If the dog is circling and starts to cut in towards the stock before commanded to do so, give him a verbal correction. Some trainers like to growl at the dog n a fashion so he understands the displeasure. When the dog cuts in towards the stock, voice you displeasure “AAAGGGE!”, and then command “Get back!!”.

It could take from a couple of days to several weeks of this kind of work to get a young dog to develop his balance and learn not to come in on the stock until asked. Continue this exercise working alternately in both directions periodically stopping the dog and letting him fetch the stock until he will work well off the stock, stop immediately on command and “walk up” or bring the stock in on command. Remember, at this stage direction commands have not be used. The direction the dog takes is determined by simply blocking the path and encouraging him to take the opposite direction. This activity can become very boring to the dog, so keep it short and varied and build gradually on having the dog fetch the stock on a straight line. Through out the entire training process it is very important to remember, never stop the dog or make him lie down before correcting him. Always give the correction before additional commands. Otherwise, he will think he is being corrected for stopping or lying down on command.

As progress is made and the dog is circling in either direction well off his stock, responding well to the “Get back” or “Get out” command and fetching the stock, the “There” command can be introduced. “There” is used to turn the dog directly towards the stock wherever the dog may be. Teach “There” by giving the dog the command when he reaches the 12 o’clock position, opposite the stock. This will be the point where the dog naturally wants to turn to the stock and it should take very little effort to get him to respond well to this command. If necessary, the command can be enforced by an upheld cane or arm held out to the side as if to block the dog from continuing to circle. Blocking with a cane or arm is also an effective way to encourage the dog to fetch the stock on a straight line. As the dog’s confidence and skill builds, he can be asked to take the “There” command at various locations other than the 12 o’clock position. Try giving the “There” command at the 9 o’clock or the 3 o’clock position followed by a “Walk up” command. Just encourage him to take a very few steps at this point. Developing the “There” command and a good response is necessary for teaching the dog to drive later on. Do not attempt to start any actual driving work at this stage.

This is a very good place to stop and take a real hard look at the dog’s accomplishments. If the dog is working absolutely perfectly at all phases discussed so far, then prepare to proceed. If not, then go back to work until it is perfect. Remember, Rome wasn’t built in a day and a dog can’t be trained overnight. Patience… Persistence… Practice…


Start by placing the stock just a short distance away, say 15-20 yards. with the dog lying down, stand directly between the dog and the stock, being a little closer to the stock than the to the dog. By the time this stage is reached, the dog will have an established favorite direction. This is common and can be capitalized upon for the time being. Later on, more emphasis will be placed on the weak direction to balance him out and make him work well in either direction.

With the dog down and the stock 15-20 yards away, give the dog an appropriate command to send him in the direction he has shown to favor. Of course, he has no idea what the command means, but he is most likely to want to get around the stock and will probably move out at the slightest indication. Perhaps just a little body English or blocking with the cane can easily guide his direction. As he moves to the stock, a wide run must be insured by pushing him out and using the “Get back” or “Get out” commands already established. Get the dog around the stock.

When he reaches the balance point or 12 o’clock position, stop the dog momentarily then have him fetch the stock for a short distance. Stop the dog once again and let the stock drift off to about 15-20 yards away from the dog. The handler should then reposition himself between the stock and the dog and repeat the exercise in the same direction. Repeat this exercise continuing to work in the dog’s favorite direction at the same distance till he has it down pat. As the dog gains confidence and works properly, gradually change the position taken by the handler working closer and closer to the dog before sending him off. Before he is ready to move on to either a greater distance or a different direction, the dog should respond to a command from the handler’s side or not more than one a yard or so behind him and make a perfect outrun.

Now comes the decision as to whether to increase the distance by 10 yards or so or to develop the short outrun in the opposite direction. Many of the top trainers in Britain will work with the dog in just one direction until they have perfected the outrun to 150-200 yards before they ask the dog to go to the other direction. The purpose of this is to capitalize on the dogs’ favorite side and build his confidence and understanding of what is wanted before pressure is put to make him work to his weak side.

On the other hand, if the dog seems to be learning well and has shown a good deal of flexibility in accepting new ideas, he may respond well to learning the opposite direction at this same 15-20 yard distance before proceeding to longer distances. Whichever tack is chosen, it is important to increase the distance in increments of only about 10 yards at a time, being sure everything is done right at each graduated distance before going further. If a problem develops, go back to a shorter distance to correct it. Remember, the dog’s confidence is continually being built as he goes along.

Keep in mind at this point that a lot of pressure is being put on the dog at this stage and the drills should be kept short and pleasurable. Mix in a continuation of the basic circling work using the direction commands introduced on the outrun work as the dog circles to either his right or left. Work in a fairly large area. A lot of fetch work should be mixed into each work session. Spend a lot of time walking backwards all over the field with the dog fetching the stock. Make the dog fetch in a straight line and keep him well off the stock, stopping him as necessary in order to teach him to “Steady” or “Take time”.

In continuing with the extension of the outrun work, it is critical that the dog is never allowed to “crossover” before he goes behind the stock. As the outrun work proceeds and the dog understands the direction commands without hesitation, a maneuver can be a very useful tool both in helping the dog to run wider and enforcing him to take the proper direction on command. First, the dog must be able to circle both the stock and the handler by starting him at the 12 o’clock position giving him a direction command, “Away to me” or to the dog’s right. As the dog responds to this command, gradually change your position to the right, and then after practice farther to the right. This will take a little persistence as the dog will naturally want to go in the opposite direction. It takes a little doing, but really isn’t hard to accomplish if you are patient. The move is also easily incorporated into the circling work but should not be introduced until the dog is understanding his direction commands well.

The sections just completed have covered developing the outrun, introducing and teaching side commands, building on circling work, “There”, widening the dog’s flanks and so on and is a very big part of the dog’s total training. It doesn’t take long to read, but a lot of time will be spent in these stages. To master all these moves requires patience and several months.

Putting whistle commands on a dog is probably the easiest thing to do with the dog. Learning how to whistle, to blow a plastic shepherd’s whistle, and to determine what you want to use for the various whistle commands is probably the hardest thing to do. Whistle commands are best if they are kept very simple. Be concerned that each whistle command is enough different from the others that the dog can recognize the difference immediately. Six whistle commands are all that is needed for a dog; Stop, There, Right, Left, Walk up, and Recall.

The stop or “Lie down” command is universally a long, shrill whistle. “There” can be a shorter, lower tone. “Walk up” is usually two short, high pitched tones. Side commands can be anything. Jack Knox says, “I like to use a single tone one side, and double the other. Keep them different and keep them positive.”

To put a whistle command on the dog, simply give the whistle command followed immediately with the appropriate voice command while working close at hand with the dog. When the dog starts to respond correctly to the whistle command before the voice command is uttered, the deed is done. After all the hard work in getting the dog to learn voice commands, it is laughable at how easy it is to put the dog on whistles. Some trainers get dogs working to the stop, there and walk up whistles very early on in their training and will actually introduce them in the circling stages of beginning work.

This guide should provide the reader with some ideas as to how to approach training a dog. It does not have all the answers, but then who does? The important thing to remember is that written instruction like this guide or training books tend to be very “black and white”. Space and time just don’t allow a person to write down all of the possible situations and reactions encountered while working with a dog. If a particular technique doesn’t work with a particular dog, stop and give a little though to how you may accomplish the same thing in a different way. Always try to capitalize on what the dog’s instincts and working characteristics are and use them to your advantage to manipulate the dog into doing what is wanted. Keep in mind what the end result should be and try to find different ways to achieve them.

Copyright 1994 Capricorn Press. Not to be reproduced without express written consent of Capricorn Press.

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